With three presidents in one week, and a history of political
corruption, can Peru’s fragile democracy stay afloat?
In a recent unfolding of events, Peru’s citizens have taken to the streets in response to the obstruction of justice and removal of former president, Martin Vizcarra.
On November 9, Peru’s Congress impeached and convicted Vizcarra on the grounds of “moral unfitness,” over unproven allegations that he “accepted more than $600,000 in bribes while he was a regional governor years ago.” (Martin, 2020) This round of impeachment proceedings was led by Congressional Speaker Manuel Merino, who along with most lawmakers, despised Vizcarra for his attempts to pass anti-corruption legislation.
Just one day after unseating Vizcarra, Congress elected Merino as president. His position was short lived, however, only remaining in office for five days before resigning due to public pressure. His appointment sparked outrage in 3 million Peruvians who could not forget this all-too-familiar pattern of ousting democratic politicians and replacing them with corrupt officials.
But for those who are not savvy in Andean politics, a quick look into Peru’s past can explain why the country is still struggling to retain its democracy.
A History of Political Corruption
Peru has had a lengthy journey towards democratization. For over 40 years, the country has pushed and pulled against the tides of corruption and its people have tirelessly battled for a more honest, transparent, and effective government.
Peru’s constitution was born from the authoritarian mind of Albert Fujimori- a president who in 1993 set out to rewrite the rules to prevent crooked leaders like himself from being held accountable. Since then, this controversial constitution has been unsuccessful in preventing the extreme amounts of political upheaval that has plagued the country. (Aquino, 2020)
The first account of major corruption took place under President Fujimori’s rule from 1990 to 2000. Although this was delayed, the government sentenced him to 25 years of prison due to human rights violations during the time that he served.
Another instance involves Alejandro Toledo, who served as president from 2001 to 2006. Currently, he is “fighting extradition from the United States over allegations that he received $20 million” from a Brazilian firm called Odebrecht; under Peruvian law, it is unconstitutional for a president to accept monetary contributions from foreign entities. (Tegel, 2019)
Just as history repeats itself, so do the actions of bad politicians. Following in Mr. Toledo’s footsteps, President Kuczynski also faced corruption charges in 2018 from his business ties to Odebrecht. To survive impeachment, Kuczynski negotiated a pardon for former president Fujimori, but was unable to maneuver another set of impeachment proceedings when videos were leaked showing Kuczynki buying the votes of legislators. That’s when his vice president, Martín Vizcarra, ascended to the presidency.
Vizcarra Shows Promise of Rebuilding Democracy
Vizcarra was elected in 2016 after gaining support from many Peruvians who were tired of the political corruption that had plagued the country for far too long. After two years in office, Vizcarra’s repeated attempts to pass anti-corruption policies proved unsuccessful as congressmen continuously blocked his measures.
After exhausting all his plans to bring progress to Peru, Vizcarra completely abolished the presiding Congress in 2019 and called for elections to establish a new political body. Most Peruvians were in support of eliminating the corrupt lawmakers that sat in the nation’s capital.
But according to Peru’s constitution, Vizcarra had overstepped his presidential powers, so the previous congress remained intact. Officials originally planned to remove Vizcarra after this unorthodox move, but the Vice President – the only person eligible to take the position – resigned from office.
Just two months ago, Speaker Merino brought forth official impeachment proceedings, charging Vizcarra on the grounds of “permanent moral incapacity.” Although Merino accused Vizcarra of illegally signing a contract that was a conflict of interest, these allegations lacked strong evidence, and the impeachment was dropped. (Ko, 2020)
But a history of unethical leaders is not the only thing plaguing the country. Partisan polarization has become a massive contributor in accelerating the backsliding of Peru’s democracy.
President Fujimori left a party that had and still has a widely enthusiastic base. That party is recognized in Peru as the Fujimori-Conservative party and is mostly characterized as traditionalists that oppose equal gender rights and help for the poor, and generally support strong capitalistic tendencies.
In 2016, President Vizcarra narrowly beat Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the preceding president, by less than two percentage points. Opponents to his party quickly rose in both society and Congress, ultimately undermining his legitimacy and functionality as President. Since his election, Peru has mimicked what America has undergone; a political trench, hostile enough to divide the right and the left.
The Tumultuous Present
The current president, Francisco Sagasti, will remain in office until the official presidential elections in April of 2021.Although the state of the nation is still submerged in confusion and chaos, Sagasti’s swearing-in was seen as a compromise for the protestors, as he had been a“relatively obscure politician” who “declined to support the impeachment proceedings against Vizcarra.” (Ko, 2020)
But in five short months, any peace that settles over the country will likely dissipate as the choice of presidential candidates carry negative connotations from past leaders. Those running include Daniel Urresti, a former military general accused but not convicted of killing a famous news reporter; Kenji Fujimori, son of Alberto Fujimori; and Antauro Humala, a retired major in the armed forces who served jail time for an unsuccessful coup attempt he staged in 2005. (Otis, 2015)
With these bleak options, Peruvians will yet again be faced with choosing the “least evil” candidate to run their fragile democracy- hopefully not into the ground.
The old political circles of power continue to remain influential; but as tensions heighten, the candidates will be forced to confront the emerging power of Peru’s unsatisfied citizens. (Ko, 2020)
Only “28 percent of Peruvians say they are satisfied with their democracy,” so relying on safeguards and institutions to uphold fairness and equality is no longer an option. (Levitsky, 2014) It will be up to the Peruvians engaged in social movements to produce a leader and a party that can represent them and protect their crumbling democracy.
HISTORICAL OUTLINE OF CONGRESS. (2020). Retrieved September 24, 2020, from http://www.congreso.gob.pe/eng/overview/history/
Aquino, M., & Rochabrun, M. (2020, November 20). Exclusive: Peru’s Sagasti says he will not push for referendum on constitution. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-peru-politics-president-exclusive-idUSKBN2802FL
Ko, N. (2020, November 18). Analysis | Peru had three presidents in just one week. How could that happen? Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/11/18/peru-had-three-presidents-just-one-week-how-could-that-happen/
Levitsky, S. (2014). First Take: Paradoxes of Peruvian Democracy. Retrieved September 24, 2020, from https://revista.drclas.harvard.edu/book/first-take-paradoxes-peruvian-democracy
Martín, N. (2020, November 20). Peruvian Presidents Are Becoming an Endangered Species. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/11/20/peru-president-resigns-sagasti-weak-parties/
Otis, J. (2015, September 17). Peru’s Urresti has eyes on presidency despite being charged in 1988 journalist murder. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://cpj.org/reports/2015/09/peru-urresti-bustios-journalist-murder-presidency/
Tegel, S. (2019, May 09). Ex-president’s suicide brings more criticism of Peru’s pretrial detentions. Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/suicide-of-former-president-brings-criticism-of-perus-pretrial-detentions/2019/04/18/2088d344-61d9-11e9-bf24-db4b9fb62aa2_story.html
Hi Gina! I really enjoyed learning about Peruvian political history, the pervasive corruption in Peru and the current struggle to elect a president. When reading this post I was reminded of the situation in Chile where mass protests last year led to a referendum for creating a new constitution to replace the old constitution written under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. That in both Peru and in Chile the current constitutions were created during a time of dictatorship is interesting and I wonder if it is a reason why both countries have not completely succeeded in consolidating democracy. I also thought it was interesting how the legacy of Alberto Fujimori was not just from the constitution but also because there are still many people still loyal to him and people related to him seeking positions of power. I am curious about what could be done to shift Peruvian loyalty away from Fujimori and towards democratic institutions where satisfaction is currently low. Even so, protests that are against corruption seems to indicate that there is an interest among Peruvians to establish a working democracy. Also, it sounds like the options for the future president do not look good but I hope that protests can produce a situation that preserves Peruvian democracy. With high participation and mass protests in Chile, the social movements were able to be successful and perhaps we will see the same in Peru.
This is a very well-written and timely piece. I think you do a great job highlighting the structural problems inherent in Peru’s history that perhaps makes the nation predisposed to erosion. I thought of the idea of structural theory, or the idea that Peru’s previous leaders who eroded Peru’s democracy thus changed the structure or the government and society, leading it to be more vulnerable to future acts of erosion. The idea of structural theories versus agentic theories would be an interesting one to explore in Peru––do you believe it’s more of a structural problem or an issue of bad actors? This idea was brought up in Lust and Waldner as to the causes of backsliding, and I think it directly applies to the issue Peru faces today. Especially given that you mention there’s a party directly called the Fujimori-Conservative Party, I’d really be interested in hearing more about structural versus agentic causes in Peru’s recent backsliding.
I would be interested in hearing more about what you touched on at the end of the article, about how it’s now up to “Peruvians engaged in social movements” to produce a representative leader ready to handle democratic erosion. I’d be interested in hearing exactly how you think citizens in Peru can play a role in the movement against erosion. How can citizens in Peru serve as a check against corrupt politicians? Based on the recent events with the transition of power from Vizcarra to Merino and his quick resignation, it seems that the main actors were the legislature and “public pressure” in the ouster of Merino. What does effective public pressure look like, and can it be successful against democratic erosion in the long term? I think your article provides a great jumping off point to answering these questions, and a great way to answer a more general question about citizens’ roles in fighting erosion.
University of Chicago, Class of 2022
Hi Gina, I would definitely describe myself as someone who is not savvy in Andean politics, so thank you for this informative post! I found your report on Peru’s current political situation and history intriguing, especially as other countries around the world seem to also be trending towards democratic backsliding. In particular, as a U.S. citizen relieved by Biden’s win but still concerned about Trump’s impact and legacy, I thought it was very useful to understand what the aftermath of an authoritarian leader can look like. You state that “the choice of presidential candidates carry negative connotations from past leaders” – this makes sense and is something I worry about. It seems like when precedents have been broken, institutional structures have been altered, and the public has realized that there are fewer rules governing politicians than they may have originally thought, the road to political power becomes open to anyone who is passionate enough about what they believe in. This is fundamentally a positive development for democracy, since it increases the range of people vying for positions in the government. However, this event being categorized as a positive development is contingent on the overarching political system being democratically sound, and the will of the public truly being reflected in their representation in the government. While the situations in the U.S. and Peru are not exactly the same, in both countries there are enough issues in the government and in accurate public representation in the government to make dangerous leaders and candidates a real threat to the democracy of the nation. It is scary to think that without the necessary checks and balances on power, any democratic nation could eventually be in Peru’s position where “relying on safeguards and institutions to uphold fairness and equality is no longer an option.”